Shooting (Execution) of Nguyen Van Lem

An Iconic Photo from the Vietnam War

June 2016 & September 2019

    From:  Preston Cluff

   Dated:  September 29,2019

Subject:  The Circle of Life of Navy Captain Huan Nguyen

Thanks so much for an unknown (to me) piece of history, Marc.  As I forward, I'm certain many more are also just learning.  Preston

    From:  David Pinto

   Dated:  June 5, 2016

Subject:  Today I Found Out the Story Behind the Man Killed in the Famous "Saigon Execution" Photograph

Perhaps one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War (see above), this photo depicts a uniformed South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head.  When you look into it, however, there is much more to this photograph than first meets the eye.  There is an undeniable brutality to this photo, but even Eddie Adams--who won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing this shot--later admitted that it didn’t tell the whole story and he stated that he wished he hadn’t taken it at all. 

Looking at this image out of context, it appears as though an officer is gunning down an innocent prisoner, perhaps even a civilian.  You are apparently witnessing a savage war crime.  That is the reason this image was adopted by anti-war protesters as an indictment against the Vietnam War.  Without understanding the background, there is no reason to think that is not the case.  It seems like yet another image showing someone acting horrifically and immorally during war time.  But, when you learn the story behind the man who is being executed in this photo, the image and the reasoning behind the execution becomes a little bit clearer. 

This man’s name was Nguyen Van Lem, but he was also known as Captain Bay Lop.  Lem was no civilian; he was a member of the Viet Cong. Not just any member, either, he was an assassin and the leader of a Viet Cong death squad who had been targeting and killing South Vietnamese National Police officers and their families. 

Lem’s team was attempting to take down a number of South Vietnamese officials.  They may have even been plotting to kill the shooter himself, Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan.  It is said that Lem had recently been responsible for the murder of one of Loan’s most senior officers, as well as the murder of the officer’s family. 

According to accounts at the time, when South Vietnamese officers captured Lem, he was more or less caught in the act, at the site of a mass grave.  This grave contained the bodies of no less than seven South Vietnamese police officers, as well as their families, around 34 bound and shot bodies in total.  Eddie Adams, the photojournalist who took the shot, backs up this story.  Lem’s widow also confirmed that her husband was a member of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), and that he disappeared before the beginning of the Tet Offensive.  After being captured with the bodies during the Tet Offensive, Nguyen Van Lem was taken to Major General Ngoc Loan.  In a street in Saigon, Loan executed Lem with his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson.

The photographer, Eddie Adams, had this to say of capturing the photo: I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture.  When they were close--maybe five feet away--the soldiers stopped and backed away.  I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left.  He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it.  I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning.  So I prepared to make that picture--the threat, the interrogation.  But it didn’t happen.  The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.  I made a picture at the same time.

The General then walked up to Adams and said,  “They killed many of my people, and yours, too,” then walked away.

This may have been the end of Lem’s life, but it was not the end of the story.  The image of Lem’s execution, and public reaction to it, played a small role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end.  Although that is no bad thing, it also demonized General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, which was something Eddie Adams was extremely sorry for. 

He was quoted as saying, "The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera."  Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the General at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”

Adams felt that, by taking the photo, he had ruined Loan’s life. He felt Loan was a good man, in a bad situation, and he deeply regretted the negative impact that the photo had on him.  In fact, Major General Loan later moved to the United States. When he arrived, the Immigration and Nationalization Services wanted to deport him partially because of the photo taken by Adams. They approached Adams to testify against Loan, but Adams instead testified in his favor and Loan was allowed to stay.   When Loan died of cancer in 1998, Adams stated, “The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”


After emigrating to the U.S. in 1975, the former General, Nguyen Loan, opened a pizza parlor in Washington D.C., which he ran until 1991, when his identity was discovered and he was forced to retire after receiving many threats.


    From:  Marc Yablonka

   Dated:  September 29,2019

Subject:  The Circle of Life of Navy Captain Huan Nguyen

My pleasure Preston.  Sadly, so much of the story which emanated out of Eddie Adams' photo is unknown to the world.  Eddie abhorred the fact that he was singularly known, except to other photojournalists perhaps, for that one photo.  He also felt that by snapping it he had ruined Loan's life, relegating him to the life of a pizza parlor owner in VA, a sentiment not shared by Loan, and the two remained life-long friends.  And while the photo remains, along with Nick Ut's photo of Kim Phuc, "the napalm girl", one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War, few were ever apprised of the fact that it was in retribution for what the VC (Lem) had done previously.

    From:  Marc Yablonka

   Dated:  September 29,2019

Subject:  The Circle of Life of Navy Captain Huan Nguyen

Marc sent a link an article in the "LittleSaigonInsideBlogspot:"  Click Here

    From:  Ken Kalish

   Dated:  June 9, 2016

Subject:  Today I Found Out the Story Behind the Man Killed in the Famous "Saigon Execution" Photograph

There is much more to General Loan’s story.  Loan had already been told the story of Lop’s unit’s deeds and how Lop was the only survivor of the gunfight that led to his capture.  What the article did not say was that video of that shot also exists.  It shows Lop being led to the General and the immediate execution, not even time to blink before Lop was killed.  It also shows the fountain of blood spraying from Lop’s head as his body collapsed.  I don’t think it was a Smith & Wesson Loan used, in part because it was a hammerless pistol.  That made the shutter trip even more fortuitous because the photographer didn’t expect a shot from the pistol.  It was the sound of the shot itself that made the photographer trip the shutter.  For what it’s worth I think Loan was a true patriot, a man who stood up for his troops.  I would have done the same under those circumstances.
Loan also owned a Virginia liquor store, which he did not tell reporters about and which he owned until his death. I can only imagine the kind of jerk who would call him up and threaten his life.  I guess it would be the kind too cowardly to face him man to man.
Ken Kalish

AFVN Group Conversations

    From:  Joe Ciokon

   Dated:  June 5, 2016

Subject:  Today I Found Out the Story Behind the Man Killed in the Famous "Saigon Execution" Photograph

Nick Palladino and I knew this.  He and I were at the battle of the Y Bridge during TET 2 in May.  We were like ten feet away from him when he was wounded twice while leading the charge against the VC trying to infiltrate from the Delta.  Loan was riding atop an armored car in front of his troops.  Nick was married to one of the General's cousins. They were a rich family.

Joe C